American trust in government near ‘historic lows,’ Pew finds

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Uncle Sam isn’t a trustworthy dude.

He was in 1964, when Americans gave the government he symbolizes a positive rating of 77 percent.

Since then, public trust has fallen to a disturbing 20 percent, “near historic lows,” according to a Pew Research Center report released this week. Unfortunately, that low approval rating reflects “decades of distrust,” the report said, and “a sentiment that has changed very little since former President George W. Bush’s second term in office.”

Yet the troubling picture painted by the broad bush obscures points of appreciation and hope.

“Americans’ unhappiness with government has long coexisted with their continued support for government having a substantial role in many realms,” Pew found.

Significant majorities say the government does “too little” on issues affecting certain groups, including the low-income, middle-income and retirees.

Trust in government is higher not only when government works better, but also when people have a better understanding of what government is doing, according to Teresa W. Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonpartisan think tank.

She praised President Biden’s Management Agenda for its “focus on improving customer experience for critical life events and improving the performance and delivery of government services.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be America without a partisan divide.

“Republicans are less likely than Democrats to favor a major role for government in most areas,” the Pew report says, adding that “this is especially — and increasingly — the case for alleviating poverty.”

The survey asked if government should play a “major role” in 12 areas. Helping people out of poverty was last, with a slim 52 percent majority agreeing. Preventing terrorism ranked highest at 90 percent.

There also are racial and ethnic differences.

Overwhelming majorities of Black, Asian and Hispanic respondents said that “government should do more to solve problems.” But just over half of White people said that “the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”

Unfortunately, the public has little confidence in elected officials to fix what’s wrong.

About two-thirds of adults, “including nearly identical shares in both parties,” said most people seeking elected office at all levels “do so to serve their own personal interests,” Pew reported.

The public has much more confidence in career federal employees than political appointees, but that is declining. The 52 percent confidence rating in career feds dropped nine points since 2018. That’s still significantly higher than the 39 percent rating for appointees.

Rhetoric from Donald Trump, who was president in 2018, did nothing to improve that confidence. His attitude and tone were established during his campaign with his calls to “drain the swamp” in Washington, a line feds took personally. His policies, particularly regarding federal labor unions, put that rhetoric into practice. Republican accusations about a conspiratorial “deep state,” lurking within the government to thwart Trump, encouraged distrust in the government and its workers.

Uncle Sam did get some love from the Pew respondents. Strong majorities, from 64 percent to 70 percent, say the government is somewhat or very good at responding to natural disasters, preventing terrorism, ensuring safe food and medicine, and setting fair and safe workplace standards.

Notably, “the only area in which a significantly larger share of Republicans [47 percent] rate the job the federal government is doing more positively than Democrats [36 percent] is on protecting the environment,” Pew found. And despite the continuing and highly partisan battles over health care, “nearly equal shares in both parties say the government does a good job of ensuring access to health care.”

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies the federal government and employees, attributed the big drop in trust from the 1960s in part to attitudes following the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.

But he believes that negative slide can be turned around if Washington communicates better and promotes the government’s good works.

He cited the military, which suffered “a substantial decline in trust, then bounced back.” Stier credited that to better communication by the Pentagon, noting how it works with Hollywood on the military’s image. In real life, especially during an age of international terrorism, the public wants the military’s protection.

The Partnership for Public Service sponsors the best-known recognition of federal employees with its Service to America Medals, but Stier wants the government to do much more to honor its own.

Promotion by agencies of “the great work” of career civil servants, he complained, “doesn’t happen, hardly at all.”

For Stier, the issue of trust is an issue of leadership.

“Leaders in government have a responsibility to demonstrate,” he said, “that they’re there on behalf of and serving the public.”